In a continuation of yesterday’s post, Lindsay actually finds a passage in Freedom that uses the word “feminist.” Relevant!
In Patty and Walter Berglund, the First Couple of Freedom, Jonathan Franzen gives us a pretty interesting role reversal: a husband who says he’s a feminist, but a wife who explicitly says she’s not. Groundbreaking! In a flashback to one of their first dates back in the 70s, here’s where it all goes down:
Walter: “But aren’t you offended, as a feminist?”
Patty: “I don’t really think of myself as a feminist.”
Walter: “That’s unbelievable! You don’t support the ERA?”
Patty: “Well, I’m not very political.”
Walter: “But the whole reason you’re here in Minnesota [for college] is you got an athletic scholarship, which couldn’t have even happened five years ago. You’re here because of feminist federal legislation. You’re here because of Title Nine.”
Patty: “But Title Nine’s just basic fairness. If half your students are female, they should be getting half the athletic money.”
Walter: “That’s feminism!”
Patty: “No, it’s basic fairness.”
Frustrating, right? Patty’s difficulties in identifying with feminism — or even in recognizing it at play in her own life — are troubling, but they also feel pretty modern. I’m sure we’ve all played the Walter in this conversation at some point, while a Patty patiently insists, “feminism’s not a big deal anymore, there’s no point in getting all political about it.” In that way, I thought this piece of Franzen’s dialogue rang very true.
So how about that Walter? Has Franzen finally bestowed upon the world a literary character who’s a shining example of How to be a Feminist Dude? Well, hate to break it to you, but…no. We get hints early in the book that Walter’s definition of feminism is kind of narrow (later in this conversation he puts Patty down for wanting to be “a really really great mom”). Even though Walter identifies as a feminist, all throughout Freedom he falters when taking it out of the theoretical realm and applying it to his actual life. And though there’s room for argument (comments! let’s go!), I wouldn’t say that Patty really develops much of a feminist conscience either.
And ultimately, that was my biggest issue with Freedom: I didn’t feel like there were any characters I could identify with, especially from a feminist perspective. One of the novel’s themes is futility when it comes to changing things. The characters seem able to recognize problems with systemic institutions, but they all end up more or less where they began.
Still, while I don’t find Freedom a particularly feminist novel for that reason, I’d certainly not dismiss it as sexist either. There’s a lot of passages to provoke interesting feminist conversation, once you just, you know, actually open the book.